Sunday, 16 December 2012

Dinner table: Food for thought

'Dinner table settings'
by joeywan under a CC license
For the part of the world that is lucky enough to have secured a minimum amount of food on a daily basis, the dinner table may feel like the reasonable place to end the daily routine.

In fact, though, the dinner table is much more than that. It's the place to talk with family and friends. It's the place to listen to others. It's the place to get to know people. It's the place for all emotions, from sorrow to happiness and from anticipation to excitement. It's the place to secure a deal, explore arguments, brainstorm on ideas, announce plans and... well... eat.

The latter, quite rightfully, sounds like stating the obvious. However, what I'm really trying to say is that, food-wise, the dinner table is challenging in many different ways. While, normally, we tend to focus either on the social dimension of eating or on satisfying the physical need to eat, getting things in order for a dinner table (or any meal, in fact) is not that simple a process. Indicatively, consider the following elements:
  • General food safety; are the raw materials safe, has the food been handled properly, etc.
  • Food allergens; is the food OK for the people that will consume it with respect to allergens, does one of them has an allergy on one of the ingredients used, is it likely to have allergens present through contamination, etc.
  • Nutrition; does the meal provide what is needed for all its intended consumers, does it provide variety under the "balanced nutrition" rationale, etc.
  • Special dietary needs; are they known for each of those consuming the meal, are cultural or religious-based dietary needs also considered, are they properly addressed altogether, etc.
  • Acceptance; are the meal elements acceptable at the sensory level, i.e., do they look nice, do they have an appealing flavour and taste, etc.
  • Novelty; is the meal intriguing or interesting for those who will consume it (not necessarily in the sense of 'food innovation')?
'Table' by anthimeria
under a CC license
Don't consider that list as exhaustive. It's not. Not even close. What is interesting is that each of the points above is close to being a science on its own.  And what is challenging is that for each of the points above there is still much to investigate and learn (at the scientific level).

Most of you will argue that although we normally eat on a daily basis in our lives the food we consume rarely causes problems. That is a fair point. But:
  • The reaction of people to unsafe food depends on their overall health status and the factor that makes the food in question unsafe. Pathogens like listeria monocytogenes tends to be more of a concern for immunosuppressed individuals and pregnant women but there are food-borne pathogens that much more aggressive. Contaminants of chemical or biological nature may or may not lead to acute effects, depending on the type of agent, the amount consumed, etc. The impact of the consumption of unsafe food on human health and well-being in the long run is not always very easy to calculate. Besides that, most food-related incidents tend to be downplayed (e.g., an upset stomach or a single diarrhea incident is normally ignored) so the exact impact of non-safe food is likely under-estimated.
  • Food allergy is not that rare. It 's impact on the individual depends on the level of sensitisation for the allergen in question and the amount consumed but in some cases it can be life-threatening.
  • Good nutrition is a standing challenge. Nutrient needs vary depending on both genetic factors, age, health status, life-style choices and cultural background. Beyond that, there are people with special dietary needs, who need to abstain from certain ingredients or require more or less from specific ingredients. For instance, coeliacs must follow a gluten-free diet. To make things more complicated, the availability of each nutrient is a dish depends on several factors, including the nutrient form in the food, the food matrix (i.e., where is the nutrient contained), the presence of other ingredients (e.g., a nutrient may become partially "out of reach" to the digestive system in the presence of specific ingredients).
  • Acceptance for both "normal" and "novel" foods is a relatively new niche for studies under food science. There is still a lot to learn on how people make choices for food and towards what result. It is not always the question of whether the food smells, tastes and "feels" good, though. Cultural background, habit or past personal experiences, amongst others, can make people like or detest certain foodstuffs.
I'm not suggesting or implying that the person who cooks dinner should get a food science degree. I'm merely pointing out that there is really a lot to learn for something many of us normally take for granted.

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